Your customers are constantly telling you what they think of your Web site, your company, and your products. All you need to do is learn how to listen

Last year Playboy Enterprises sued former Playmate of the Year Terri Welles for using its trademarked phrases on her advertising-supported Web site. Playboy's lawyers asked me to be an expert witness for the plaintiff, which meant I had to spend several hours poring over Welles's site or risk letting down our noble judicial system (honest, Honey). Unfortunately, duty also required that I spend at least as much time examining her Web-server logs to better understand how the site was being used. I had to promise the attorneys that I wouldn't bill them for the times I fell asleep. But excruciatingly dull as they are, server logs are your friends.

Imagine how you could improve sales in a physical store if you could track customers' every footstep, every Charmin squeeze, every banana sniff. Server logs perform that function for Web sites. The logs record all the files--pages, images, audioclips--that your site sends to link-clicking surfers. In person, server logs aren't much to look at: line after stultifying line of which computer (not which person) asked for what file when. But they offer up the first round of information about who visits your site and what they're after.

With the help of log-analysis software (trying to read one of these suckers yourself would be like perusing a five-mile-long grocery-store receipt), you can glean from server logs everything from how to improve navigation to what people think of your products. Do visitors travel from your product description to your price list to your warranty information and then bail? Maybe you need to offer better warranties. Do they click to your home page from a banner ad and then abandon ship? Maybe it's time to change the link so that it goes from the banner directly to the product advertised. Which of your Frequently Asked Questions is, in fact, most frequently asked? An oft-accessed FAQ is a red flag signaling a problem with your user manual, your packaging, your advertising--even your products.

Server logs record not only what people do on your site but also how they got there, information that's tremendously helpful in budgeting for site advertising and marketing. Do the bulk of visitors to your insecticide company's site type in the URL? That suggests your off-line publicity is doing its job. Or are they coming from If so, you might consider becoming that site's exclusive sponsor, in order to forestall competitors' access to a hot source of prospects. More likely, they're finding you through search engines, in which case your log will tell you which keywords brought them there. If people find you more often by searching for ants than spiders, think about replacing that black widow on your home page with something that has 25% fewer legs.

When sites are well designed, server logs become even more informative. If your site simply lets users choose from a list of products, you'll learn which holds the most interest to potential customers. But if you categorize your products and ask customers to work their way through more general information in order to reach specifics, you'll learn a great deal more. For instance, RPM Consulting does sophisticated network-management and internetworking consulting. A network is a network, right? Yet the company asks site visitors to choose from:

  • Banking & Financial Institutions
  • Hospitals & Health Care
  • Insurance
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Manufacturing

Once RPM knows which market segments it is reaching best on-line, it can adjust its site to cater to those customers--or to enhance its site's appeal to the no-shows.

With the computer watching every click, we sometimes forget that the best source of information remains the horse's mouth. Just because you can follow your visitors' footsteps is no reason not to ask them straight out what they want, like, and think.

You don't have to be pushy. If you like, ask only some of the people some of the time. (Cookies--digital strings-around-the-finger that Web sites can deposit on visitors' hard drives--can tell you which people you've asked already.) Offer an incentive. Put up a button that says, "Answer these questions for a free T-shirt." Publish a monthly newsletter that informs, entertains, and asks readers to tell you something you want to know. On the last page of your order form, offer customers free shipping if they'll share their impressions about their shopping experience. Or simply request their help: "We're trying to make this site better, and we can't do it without you." And don't forget to say "please" and "thank you."